Flexibility is the Beekeeper’s Game

A typical day from June 2019 on the east coast of Newfoundland.

I often set up Gmail reminders about things I’d like to remember a year later. Here’s a Gmail reminder that came in three days ago:

    A year ago today (July 7th, 2019), the temperature finally went above 20°C (68°F) and stayed there for a while. Until then, we were buried with cold rain and fog and the occasional mildly warm day that may have peaked at around 10°C (50°F). My honey bees in Flatrock virtually died from not being able to forage and not really having anything to forage on until July 7th.

It may not have been as bad in more inland areas of the island, but there were so little resources available, the nucs I ordered took forever to build up (a huge contrast to the nucs I had in the summer of 2016) . My bees barely drew out any new comb, too, though that may have had more to do with the waxless plastic foundation I used. In any case, it’s often helpful to look back at the previous year to see how things change dramatically from year to year. (That’s the main reason I maintain this blog. For those on a desktop, if you scroll way down on the right side menu until you see ARCHIVES, those monthly archives are the most valuable links for me. I click them all the time.)

This spring wasn’t the greatest (it seems rare to have a good spring on the east coast of Newfoundland), but June 2020, with it’s stifling heat and humidity, was the opposite of June 2019, or as we say, Junuary. It felt like winter for most of last June. This June I had to do everything to stay ahead of my colonies so they wouldn’t swarm.

It seems that beekeepers — and especially beekeepers in places like Newfoundland — should prepare themselves and their bees for entirely different conditions from season to season. That’s the moral of today’s story.

Swarm Week – June 24th, 2020

The thermometer reads 30°C (86°F) in my backyard at this moment. This is not a typical Newfoundland summer day.

Apparently the humidex reading is the highest recorded on this date in nearly 30 years. Not a bad time to put on some empty moisture quilts to give my the bees some relief.

We might as well call this Swarm Week. I’ll be keeping a very, very close eye on my hives this week.

I guess this makes up for the lousy winter

…and the slow-moving spring we had this year. It took my colonies forever to build up. I hope they’re happy now.

When To Add Another Super

The population of a honey bee colony can explode in no time once the weather warms up and everything comes into bloom. (That’s right about now, by the way, at least in my little corner of the Isle of Newfoundland.) All that nectar, all the pollen, all the warm air, all that sunshine — the next thing you know, the bees are getting ready to swarm, or they’ve already swarmed. It seems to take only a few days for the bees to get that message when the conditions are right. As a general rule, when I open a hive and see bees over the top bars of every frame, I add another super, another hive box — I give the colony room to grow. They may not need the extra space today or tomorrow, but when they do need it and it’s not there, boom, off they go in a giant cloud of bees that will fill the sky, also known as a swarm. This video shows what it looks like when it’s time to add another super to the hive (at least for me it does):

00:00 — A deep super (and frames) cut down to a medium.
00:40 — Bees covering the top bars (time to add a super).
01:10 — Dispersing the bees with mist instead of smoke.
01:27 — Adding the super.
01:48 — Adding a foundationless frame (for comb honey).
02:38 — Putting the hive back together.
03:10 — Confused bees looking for the new entrance.
04:52 — The bees already reoriented to the new entrance.
05:10 — A problem with a 9-frame brood chamber.

And some bonus material for those who can hold out long enough.

P.S.: I mention in the video that’s it’s June 21st when it obviously isn’t. That’s my pandemic brain jumping up and saying hello. Everybody and their cousin Bob is losing track of the days.

Original music by Phillip Cairns © 2020.

Dandelion Don’t Tell No Lies

Here’s a honey bee colony that seems to have benefited from dandelions that weren’t mowed down.

00:15 — Burr comb beneath the inner cover.
00:47 — Fresh comb made from yellow from dandelions.
01:00 — A frame of capped brood.
01:34 — Beautiful brood pattern.
01:49 — Close up of capped brood.
02:10 — Open brood (little white grubs).
02:25 — A closer look at the queen.
02:53 — Yellow burr comb.
03:50 — Honey bees scenting.
03:55 — Close up on fresh eggs in burr comb.
04:18 — Summary of inspection.

Plus some bonus material for those who bother to watch the whole thing.
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June 2018 Beekeeping Archives

This may be the longest and the least interesting video I’ve ever posted. So if that doesn’t get you going, I don’t know what will. It’s a 30 minute cell phone video from June 2018 when I still had only one hive… Hold on. I just checked it. It’s only 27 minutes long. Oh well. Anyway, the last 15 minutes of the video show a full hive inspection of a single-deep hive. There’s a lot of talking in this video. A lot of semi-nonsensical ramblings too. I admit that I get a little loopy when I’m overheated in a bee jacket that leaves my glasses sliding off my nose from all the sweat dripping off my face.

If you saw my previous month’s archive from May 2018, you’ll know my one colony was in pretty sad shape then, and it doesn’t get much better for the month of June. This weak colony should have been combined with a stronger colony. But I only had one hive, so tough luck. It illustrates why it’s always better to have at least two hives (two colonies) instead of one. With only one, you’re stuck with what you’ve got and there’s not much you can do about it. All the tricks in the book are unlikely to get a weak colony to grow into a strong colony.

Behind The Scenes Beekeeping: June 2017

This is a 30-minute collection of cell phone clips demonstrating some low-impact hive inspections and other things involved with single-hive beekeeping on the island of Newfoundland in June 2017. I know these cell phone videos aren’t the most exciting things in the world, but if anyone wants to see what it’s like to hang out with a beekeeper while doing beekeeping things, this is it.

The Cell Phone Chronicles continue with these highlights, if you want to call them that: The opening shot is a time-lapse of a dandelion opening in the morning sun, followed by a quick inspection of my one hive with lots of talking. 2:30 — my cats walking around my deserted beeyard. 5:30 — using a light bulb under my hive to keep the bees warm (a desperate move which I’ll probably never do again). 11:15 — how I store honey frames outside. 14:00 — checking out the bees on a dying dogberry tree. The video ends with some honey bees flying around dandelions in slow motion. The video shows several low key hive inspections with lots of talk about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Honey Bee Friendly Flower: Buttercups

Buttercups have been in bloom around these here parts for the past couple weeks (before that the weather was cold and miserable most of the time).

Buttercup in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland (June 28, 2016.)

Buttercup in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland (June 28, 2016.)

I’ve never seen a honey bee on a buttercup, but I know they go for buttercups, so I’ve added buttercups, or Ranunculus, to my Newfoundland Honey Bee Forage list.

Buttercup in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland (June 28, 2016.)

Buttercup in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland (June 28, 2016.)

May 30th, 2020: This plant is sometimes referred to as Creeping Buttercup, which is toxic to grazing animals. I’ve seen honey bees on buttercups a few times, but apparently there is some concern that it could be toxic to honey bees too. If it is, I doubt honey bees will bother it. They’re usually good at avoiding things in the natural environment that aren’t good for them.

June 22nd, 2020: Well, I finally saw honey bees on buttercups:

The bees didn’t stay on them for long, but they seemed willing to give them a taste.

Foundationless Frame in The Brood Nest = Less Messy Drone Comb

Two weeks ago I wrote a post on Swarm Prevention. I talked about knowing when to stop feeding to prevent swarming and all kinds of good stuff. I also said something like this:

In a standard Langstroth hive with foundation, all the foundation usually has worker-sized cells imprinted on it, so the bees tend to build worker brood comb on it, not drone comb. That leaves the queen with nowhere to lay drone comb, so she’s forced to fill the space between the boxes with drone comb — drone comb that is a big ugly mess to clean up in the spring.

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after an inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

That’s why I insert at least one foundationless frame into the brood nest of every colony. Given the choice to build comb however they like it, if they’re short on drones (and they usually are in a Langstroth hive full of plastic foundation), the bees will (usually) fill the foundationless frame with drone comb instead of gunking up the space between the brood boxes with it.

I added such a foundationless frame to my one colony that’s in pretty good shape two weeks ago. Today I took a look at that foundationless frame and found this…

Natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

…naturally drawn out drone comb with freshly laid eggs inside most of the cells.

Close up of natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

Close up of natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

The wax is yellow probably because the bees have been collecting dandelion nectar and pollen for the past few weeks.

Click the image to see a much sharper close up view of the comb.

Does adding a foundationless frame to the outside of the brood nest prevent swarming? I don’t know. I still think the #1 method for preventing swarming is the give the queen space to lay by adding drawn comb, replacing frames of honey with drawn comb if necessary. Second is to give all the bees that emerge from the brood frames space so the hive doesn’t get congested with too many bees. The pheromones from the queen and from the open brood don’t circulate well around a congested hive. The worker bees get swarmy when they can’t smell those pheromones. Third, give the rapidly-growing population of worker bees something to do. That’s another reason why I toss in foundationless frames. The bees in a crowded colony usually want to fill in that space as quick as possible. They will eat honey to make wax so they can build comb to fill in the empty space. Eating honey frees up space for the queen to lay. Then the new comb will give the queen more space to lay (probably drones). So in a perfect world all of these things balance out so the hive doesn’t get gunked up with drone brood between the boxes and the queen has enough room to lay so swarming isn’t triggered. In a perfect world.

Bees Eat Crystallized Honey

I added jar feeders full of honey to some of my hives about two weeks ago (the last time it was about 10°C / 50°F). The bees emptied the jars, so today I added some jars full of crystallized honey. And guess what? They like it!

Feeding the bees a jar full of crystallized honey. (June 04, 2016.)

Feeding the bees a jar full of crystallized honey. (June 04, 2016.)

The weather stinks. It’s so cold the bees can barely do anything. None of my colonies are in great shape and this weather doesn’t help. Stupid weather.

June 15th, 2016: Here’s a better example of it from 2013:

The honey in the video was rock solid crystallized honey. That seems like the best way to do it.

Newfoundland Honey Bee Forage

Introduction: It’s impressive to see how many wild flowers will grow in exposed soil when the soil is simply left alone. I once moved into a house with a gravel driveway and one half of the driveway was never used. Everything seemed to grow in that gravel and dirt, every kind of clover, bush, vine — you name it, it grew there. And all I did was leave it alone. I saw more of my honey bees, bumble bees and other native pollinators over on those flowers than anywhere else. So maybe planting flowers to “save the bees” isn’t necessary. Maybe all we need to do is expose some soil to the wind and see what happens. In any case, here’s a list of flowers, both wild and cultivated, that my honey bees seem to be attracted to. This list was last updated in August 2019 when I added Cow Vetch.

Honey bees in Newfoundland, or at least where I live on the eastern part of the island, aren’t likely to see any pollen until April when crocuses begin to poke through the soil.

Honey bee on crocus  (April, 13, 2011).

Honey bee on crocus (April, 13, 2011).


And crocuses aren’t even a natural source of pollen. They’re popular in some suburban neighbourhoods, but most honey bees elsewhere won’t find natural pollen until May when the dandelions come into bloom.

Honey bee on dandelion (May 26, 2011).

Honey bee on dandelion (May 26, 2011).


I say this because I’ve casually documented every honey bee on a flower I’ve seen in Newfoundland since I started beekeeping in 2010. So far I’ve documented over 30 flowers that qualify in my mind as Newfoundland Honey Bee Forage. My list is by no means comprehensive, but it provides me with a general idea of what to expect throughout the year.
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